When the Royals opened this thus-far bleak 2018 season on an equally dreary afternoon three weeks ago in Kansas City, one of the many things manager Ned Yost felt hopeful about was his bullpen.
It was a rather rag-tag bunch. A far cry from the days of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. The group barely even resembled last year’s bullpen, which featured career renaissances from Peter Moylan and Mike Minor and a sharp Scott Alexander. None but Herrera remain.
Yet there were encouraging signs.
During spring training, Rule 5 acquisitions Brad Keller and Burch Smith impressed with powerful fastballs, fellow rookie Tim Hill wielded his submarine delivery in dominating fashion, and late spring addition Justin Grimm provided intrigue with a prodigious curveball.
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Yet as Yost sat in his office at the Rogers Centre on early Wednesday afternoon, hours before the Royals were swept out of Toronto by virtue of a 15-5 clobbering by the Blue Jays, that novelty had begun to wear away.
Yost’s relief corps had posted a major-league worst 6.75 ERA in 15 games and squandered sterling performances from the Royals’ starting rotation on five occasions. They also turned manageable deficits into blowout losses to the White Sox, Mariners, Angels and Jays.
“I expected the bullpen to be better,” he said. “That surprised me a little bit, that they’ve struggled to the extent that they’ve struggled.”
He and the Royals tried to remedy part of the situation, shipping Brandon Maurer to Class AAA Omaha in an effort to help the right-hander, who they view as a viable setup arm, regain confidence.
But in the games since that move on April 15, the Royals bullpen has come no closer to a resolution. Keller has fallen into a rut, allowing four hits and six inherited runners to score in his last two outings. Grimm has continued a string of poor outings, during which he’s allowed 11 earned runs. Veteran Blaine Boyer saw his season ERA climb to 25.20 (14 earned runs in five innings).
On Wednesday, they couldn’t take all the blame.
Kennedy, a 33-year-old right-hander in his third year with the Royals, had only allowed two runs in 18 innings spanning his first three starts. He had earned one of the Royals’ precious few victories to begin this 2018 campaign. He was off to his best start since joining the Royals in 2016.
Kennedy fell into an early 1-0 hole against the Blue Jays and never climbed his way out. He wound up being charged with six runs (four earned) in five innings, during which he gave up season highs of eight hits and three walks.
“Just wasn’t sharp,” Kennedy said. “That can sum up everything.”
And the bullpen only exacerbated Kennedy’s situation.
Kevin McCarthy, who was recalled last week in Maurer’s stead, allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings. Two of them scored when Keller, who was credited a blown save in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, allowed a two-out, bases-clearing triple in the seventh inning.
And Grimm recent misfortune reached a climax in the eighth inning. He gave up six runs, including four when Curtis Granderson crushed a hanging curveball for a grand slam.
“He just didn’t have a good outing,” Yost said.
The Royals’ offense, which had only provided four runs of support in his previous outings, tried to get Kennedy back into the game. A two-run double from Mike Moustakas in the third gave the Royals a 2-1 lead, and later Whit Merrifield dumped a two-run homer beyond the wall in left-center field that tied the score at 4-4 in the fifth.
No matter how desperately the Royals tried to claw back into the game, they couldn't. A Jorge Soler home run in the eighth — his first of the year and first since July 1 of last season — went for naught.
“As a whole, we haven’t done a very good job of situational hitting,” Merrifield said. “And that’s something we have to improve on and improve on quickly. I feel like guys are starting to make strides and the at-bats are getting better, so that’s encouraging.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. We’d like to get there sooner than later.”
In the meantime, the Royals coaching staff has invested itself in trying to piece the bullpen back together. Yost suggested, perhaps off the cuff, that pitching coach Cal Eldred was racking up overtime with the amount of work he has done mining video clips for solutions.
For now, this was the end result: A somber clubhouse and players and staff packing up for a trip to Detroit. Mired in an eight-game losing streak that started a week ago in Kauffman Stadium, the Royals (3-13) will head to Comerica Park for four games against the Tigers beginning with a doubleheader Friday.
When they arrive at Comerica Park, they’ll have a 26th man on their roster again, per major-league rules pertaining to doubleheaders. It could feasibly be a bullpen arm — one that might just stick around if the Royals can’t figure out their relievers soon.
“I think Dayton (Moore) and I are always looking, we’re always evaluating,” Yost said. “We always like to try to get through the first month before we start making some changes. It definitely hasn’t been very pretty.
“In terms of making some changes, I don’t know about that.”